Parsons' funeral served up memories, big and small

He was "part Elvis, part Santa Claus and part comedian," didn't give a lick for The Beatles and was known as everybody's friend. As Friday's funeral service made clear again, Benny Parsons will be missed, writes David Newton.

Updated: January 22, 2007, 5:37 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CORNELIUS, N.C. -- The scheduled speakers, recognizable names such as Ned Jarrett, Bob Jenkins and Bill Weber, had shared their favorite Benny Parsons stories when Pastor Scott Davis asked if anybody in the congregation wanted to speak.

The right hand of a small, gray-haired man rose in the right-front corner of Grace Covenant Church.

It was Odie Skeen.

Skeen, his voice so low it barely could be heard over the sophisticated sound system, began telling how in 1968 he helped Parsons get a car to Daytona International Speedway for an ARCA race.

He laughed at all the problems they encountered, how it took 30 quarts of oil just to drive to Daytona Beach, Fla., how Parsons bought a white painter's suit and dipped it in fireproof chemicals for a uniform.

"I just wanted to tell that story," said Skeen, leaving the podium as quietly as he arrived.

Few attending Friday's memorial service for Parsons, whose fight with lung cancer ended on Tuesday, knew the old engine builder.

Had he not raised his hand he wouldn't have been noticed in a crowd that included Nextel Cup stars such as Greg Biffle, Ryan Newman and Carl Edwards.

In a crowd that included car owners such as Rick Hendrick and Ray Evernham.

In a crowd that included NASCAR legends such as Junior Johnson.

In a crowd that included top NASCAR officials such as CEO Brian France and president Mike Helton.

But it was fitting that Skeen spoke. For as much of a celebrity as Parsons was as a former Cup champion and television broadcaster, he was more about the everyday man.

As Weber, Parsons' former NBC/TNT broadcast colleague said, Parsons' favorite place was the garage where he could joke and tell stories with mechanics and crew chiefs.

Said another colleague, Allen Bestwick, "He had the gift of gab. He could talk to anybody about anything."

And that's what the memorial service was all about, laughing and telling stories.

It was much more of a celebration than the memorial services of other Charlotte-area celebrities such as former Carolina Panthers' linebacker Sam Mills, former Charlotte Hornets guard Bobby Phills and former Cup champion Dale Earnhardt.

They each died tragically at a relatively young age -- Mills of cancer at 45, Phills in a car wreck at 30 and Earnhardt in a racing incident at 49.

Their services were sad. Dry eyes were hard to find.

Smiles were as plentiful as tears on Friday.

"He would have liked this," said Lowe's Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler, one of Parsons' many longtime friends. "They told a lot of stories and he was a storyteller."

Although still young by today's standards at 65, Parsons lived a full life. In the end, knowing his time was near, he was more concerned about the welfare of others than himself.

"We knew he was a great driver," two-time Cup champion Jarrett said. "We knew he was a great broadcaster. But more than anything he was such a great individual."

The theme was repeated over and over. Jenkins, in a letter he wrote to God on Parsons' behalf, said, "If ever there was a person that should live forever, it should be BP."

Many of the stories have been repeated often since Parsons passed away. Among those was how Biffle never may have made it to NASCAR had it not been for a recommendation from Parsons to team owner Jack Roush.

Others were more personal.

"He gave me my nickname: Dummy," Jenkins said with a smile.

Many of the stories involved riding with Parsons in a car on the way to or from a track.

You learn a lot about a man in a car. You learn that Parsons was big on family, calling his wife and then son first thing after every race with the cell phone he kept in his right front pocket.

You learn that when Parsons said, "Want to stop and get a bite?" that it was a statement and not a question.

You learn that Parsons truly hated the Beatles, a group he said "ruined music forever," and that he liked to sing "How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?"

You learn that Parsons seldom got angry, such as the time he nearly sunk an SUV in a mud hole trying to escape Homestead-Miami Speedway after being warned about the danger ahead.

"He just said, 'Wow!' " recalled broadcast partner Matt Yocum. " 'Do you have a cell phone?' "

You learn the smile Parsons flashed in the booth wasn't for show.

One didn't have to look far to picture that infectious smile with which Parsons always lit the garage. It was there at the front of the church in a portrait of him standing on a porch wearing blue jeans and a blue shirt.

It was there in pictures of him with his wife, kids and grandkids.

It was there in the smiles of those listening to the stories told by others.

"His life was all about making other people happy," Jarrett said.

This wasn't about the loss of Parsons. It wasn't about his accomplishments, from winning the Winston Cup championship in 1973 to the Daytona 500 in 1975.

It was about the lives of the people he touched, of the lasting impression he made on everyone from the women who stopped him in the stands with cakes to the friends who made him the brunt of their jokes.

As Yocum so perfectly summarized, Parsons was "part Elvis, part Santa Claus and part comedian."

And he was that to young and old, from Dale Earnhardt Jr. who once said "BP is King of Cool!" to Skeen who stood near the altar long after most people were gone to tell even more stories about his good friend.

"I'm going to miss Benny," Skeen said.

A lot of people will.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter